It’s time to settle an age-old debate: nails vs. screws. Both are a form of ancient wood-fastening technology that still get the job done today. But how do you know which one to use for any given project?
That question was actually easier to answer a few decades ago because now there are many more types and sizes of nails and screws available, and many more—and better—ways to drive them in.
So let’s talk about the differences and similarities between nails and screws, so you can figure out the right one for the job.
Nails vs. Screws: A History
Let’s start by saying that both nails and screws are excellent wood fasteners when they’re sized correctly and installed properly. And in many cases, you can use either a nail or a screw for a strong, lasting connection. The right choice often comes down to the tool used to drive in the fastener, the dimensions of the wood pieces being fastened together, and whether you’re constructing a house or building a woodworking project.
At one time, nails were preferred over screws because it was much easier and faster to hammer in nails than to use a manual screwdriver or spiral-ratcheting screwdriver (e.g.: Yankee Screwdriver) to drive in slotted screws.
The advent of the Phillips-head screw in the 1930s changed everything and began the slow movement from hammering nails to driving screws. Phillips screws were fast and easy to drive in, as opposed to slotted screws, which were—and are—painstakingly slow and difficult to install. As electric and pneumatic screwdrivers became more commonplace, the popularity of screws grew exponentially.
But the real quantum leap for power-driving screws coincided with the introduction of the cordless drill/driver, the most popular portable power tool ever invented. Soon came the subsequent introduction of cordless impact drivers and impact wrenches permitted power-driving even the very longest, thickest screws.
So much for nails right? Well, not quite.
Nails once again became the fastener of choice for many jobs both small and large once people discovered the speed and ease of using air compressors and pneumatic nailers. More recently, battery-powered cordless nailers match cordless drill/drivers with the convenience of being untethered from a compressor.
One of our favorite YouTubers, The Essential Craftsman, gives a great rundown on some of the similarities and differences between our two favorite wood fasteners:
How to Pick the Right One
When deciding between nails and screws, keep in mind that nails are less brittle, so they provide greater shear strength. They may bend under pressure, but they seldom snap.
Screws, on the other hand, may not be as forgiving, but their threaded shafts hold better in wood and draw boards together much more tightly and they have greater tensile strength. Screws also do a better job of holding tight during wood’s natural expansion and contraction.
In many cases, nails can be stronger and less expensive—a bonus for any home builder.
Generally speaking, nails are popular for general carpentry jobs, such as:
- Framing walls and roofs
- Securing plywood sheathing
- Putting down hardwood floors
- Installing siding and roofing
Small-diameter nails, including finishing nails and brads, are ideal for:
- Nailing up interior moldings, such as baseboard, chair rail and window and door casings
- Installing exterior house trim, including rake boards, fascia, frieze and corner boards
- Attaching stiles and rails to cabinets
- Solid-wood edging to plywood shelves
- Anywhere you don’t want to mar the wood’s surface with the head of a screw
As mentioned earlier, both nails and screws are excellent fasteners and you can often use them interchangeably, depending on the job at hand.
Screws are preferred for such tasks as:
- Hanging drywall
- Attaching ledger boards
- Installing cabinets
- Fastening wood decking
- Fabricating cabinets, wooden toys, bookcases, and other woodworking projects
- For any wood-to-wood connection that you may need to take apart
The bottom line is that choosing the best fastener—nail or screw—comes down to selecting the right size fastener and then using the most-appropriate tool for driving it into the wood. And after you’ve gained some hands-on experience through trial and error, the right choice will become crystal clear.